Joi Maria, Featured Collaborator
Istanbulites have it. Parisians have it. So do Florentines and Cariocas. I’ve also seen it along the dusty streets of Cairo and in London’s East End lanes. It is a phenomenon I find most often when I’m on vacation in a foreign city, but it also occurs in cities domestic. I call it slow life. And I’m trying to perfect it.
Here’s the thing: when I’m in full-on tourist mode, I can turn into a bit of a tourbot. The worst kind, too: a tourbot without an off switch. I rush from site to site, attraction to attraction, trying to take in as much of the city as I possibly can in the time allotted. Even though I know deep down it’s a race I’ll never win, I still tell myself to press forward, to keep seeing and doing and seeing and doing. But while I’m tourbotting, the city’s inhabitants (and some far wiser travelers than I) are indulging in the slow life. All around me, slow lifers lounge in outdoor cafes, relax in parks, and stroll the streets, seemingly in no hurry at all. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is either since slow life weekdays and weekends are indistinguishable from each other. I find myself thinking, Don’t these people have jobs or somewhere more important to be right now? But the truth is, I’m envious of their what’s-the-big-hurry vibe, and of how effortless they make it look, this ability to move at the pace of a tortoise in a world filled with hares.
Eventually—although it sometimes takes a few days to kick in—slow life begins to wear off on me. I remember that I’m on vacation, and what’s a vacation after all, but the act of temporarily vacating one’s usual life? I remind myself that I move fast enough at home and it’s time to slow down, time to turn into one of them.
A slow lifer.
Once I locate my own off switch, I’m able to spend the rest of my vacation doing as slow lifers do—whether it’s sitting for hours in a sidewalk cafe watching tourbots rush by or wandering through an old bookstore instead of another crowded museum.
And then. Just as I’ve gotten the hang of slow life, the airline is assaulting me with emails to check in for my flight. Is it time to go already? But I have more cafés to visit, more tea to sip, more meandering to do!
Resentful and melancholy on the flight (and desperately wishing the Boeing were a time machine instead of a plane), I return home. Once there, it’s not merely the jet lag that makes me operate at half-speed, it’s also my attempt to keep to the routine of slow life. More than a magnet or T-shirt, slow life is a souvenir worth hanging on to.
Over the years, I’ve devised strategies to keep slow life within reach. For me, slow life is a “vacation” I can take anytime I want, without really going anywhere at all. It’s a way of life I can slip into at will, especially when my world starts moving at a pace I’m not interested in matching.
Need help becoming a slow lifer? Here are 10 ways to get started.
- View the world as your own personal promenade.
Good ole’ Tom and Jerry a.k.a. Right Foot, Left Foot. They’ve never once let me down. Next to the scooting and crawling we did as infants, walking is the slowest mode of transportation we have. And it’s one of the best ways to slow life. When I travel, I usually eschew public transportation in favor of walking. It’s less hectic than navigating traffic, I can control my pace, and frankly, I just see more that way. Even though I don’t live in the most pedestrian of cities, I walk as much as possible when I’m at home, too.
- Reading material. Never leave home without it.
I never leave home without a book. Knowing I have a book or magazine on hand encourages me to take advantage of impromptu breaks during busy days. I love being able to catch up on light reading if I’m early for lunch with a friend or if I’m having a solo lunch or coffee (see #5). Having reading material at the ready will give you a little mind retreat to look forward to and it will slow you right on down.
- Become regular.
I’m a barfly and proud of it. Nothing slows down life like a familiar seat in a favorite bar or restaurant. I’m a regular at certain establishments because the staff knows what I want and how I like it. I seldom have to wait, and unless I’m feeling chatty, they know to leave me be, especially if I have my laptop with me. I like to pop in just as lunch hour is wrapping up, when it’s quiet enough to enjoy a late lunch or adult beverage as I read or write. On the days I don’t plan ahead by bringing my laptop, I journal (I always have a notebook in my handbag, although my iPhone notepad function works equally well). Even when I’m working, slow life creeps in. There’s something about imbibing during the day that makes you feel like you’re on vacation, but this method also works just as well at coffee houses. It’s the regularity that counts.
- Just park it.
I love parks. I’m lucky enough to have two within walking distance of my house and I visit them often. When I travel, parks are where I slow life most. My husband and I once ate croissants then dozed on a park bench in Paris. It was one of the best slow life experiences I’ve ever had.
- Enjoy being a party of one.
My favorite dining companion never chooses a bad restaurant, she doesn’t keep me waiting, and she’s always ready to order when I am. She also doesn’t mind if I ignore her completely to read or journal and she lets me eat off her plate. We’re so in tune with each other, we can hold a conversation without uttering a single word. And the best part is, she even picks up the bill! Don’t tell my husband, but I’d say a lunch or dinner date doesn’t get better than that.
Dining alone every now and then is one of my favorite ways to slow life. Sure, a pleasant meal with good company is lovely, but sometimes silence is its own reward. How many of us have dined out with friends and thought to ourselves later how quickly the time flew by? That’s how it goes. But when I dine alone, with no one to distract me from the sensory experience of the food or from my own thoughts, a meal that could have gone by too fast with others at the table becomes one I can truly savor and even linger over if I want. Casual establishment or fine, the company is what matters. And when that company is you, how can you go wrong?
- Speaking of dining, do it al fresco.
Plein air dining is the best kind of dining, whether permitting. I am also a strong proponent of picnics. Slow life is all about watching the world go by and you can’t do that unless you’ve got a front row seat.
- Silence. Your. Phone.
Better yet, turn it off. Life changing. Slow life changing.
- Don’t drive when you can cycle.
Another way I slow life is by using my bike for short trips that it used to be second nature for me to take in my car. I’ve found that riding my bicycle gets me there almost as quickly as driving and without the headache of finding a parking space or negotiating the roads with other drivers. I feel more present in the world from the seat of my bike. I pay more attention to my surroundings because I’m moving slower. And there’s nothing like a breeze on your face.
- Chase the sun.
Two of the only things we’re promised each day are a sunrise and a sunset. I try to make sure I’m there for at least one of them. And the beauty is, the sun rises and sets at its own pace. You have no choice but to slow down if you really want to appreciate it.
- Just breathe.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. When I’m moving too fast or in the middle of an intense writing session, I often catch myself holding my breath. In fact, I’ve caught myself doing it a number of times while composing this article. But breathing is so much more than the process of moving air into and out of our lungs. By controlling and regulating our breathing, we can self-soothe, lower stress, bring about clarity, and of course, slow ourselves way down. It’s a bodily function too easily taken for granted.
Cultivating my version of the slow life has required lots of practice and a hyper-awareness of myself as a person who needs to slow down in the first place. As a result, I’m more cognizant of when I’m speeding up and I can tell myself to brake. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes it even takes looking at pictures from past vacations to remind me of what it is I’m trying to obtain. Slow life is about more than relaxation; it’s also about being present in life’s finite moments.
So what are you waiting for? Hurry up and slow down.
Joi Maria is a Texas-based short fiction writer and personal essayist. She is a co-founder of Write Inside the Loop, a critique group for new and emerging writers in the Houston area. Find her blog, The Joi of Writing, at joimaria.com.